Empowering young people through mental health first aid
The start of another school year is always a time for significant change and new situations. For young people, this can be an exciting time for reconnecting with friends and exploring new social, academic, and extra-curricular pursuits. But with change and the common pressures of adolescence there are also many challenges facing Australian teens in 2022. Mental health remains a key concern for the wellbeing and development of all young people.
We encourage parents, teachers, carers, and school wellbeing staff, to consider ways to build mental health literacy with young people for improved wellbeing and life outcomes. One of the ways to achieve this is through the Teen Mental Health First Aid Program. Not only do Teen MHFA courses equip young people with the knowledge and skills to deliver peer-to-peer support, but they also promote self-awareness around mental health topics, to encourage self-care and help seeking. This is essential for the prevention and early intervention of mental health problems and suicide.
Mental health and young people
The teen years are a critical time for physical, mental, social, and emotional development. During this time young people may be experiencing significant challenges, but not yet have the confidence, knowledge, or skills to seek formal support. Studies suggest that young people more readily turn to informal networks to explore issues affecting their lives and to talk about the things troubling them. This makes peer-to-peer care an essential component in overall mental health support.
In Australia, around 20% of young people aged 11 to 17 have experienced either high or very high levels of psychological distress (AIHW, 2020). Adolescence is also a peak time for the emergence of mental illnesses, with around 50% of diagnosable adult mental health problems having onset before the age of 14 (AJGP, 2018). Sadly, suicide also remains a leading cause of death for young people.
Some common wellbeing issues facing young people today:
- Mental health problems: Mental health problems that are statistically common amongst young people include: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders and non-suicidal self-injury. Around 22% of young people fit the criteria for probable mental illness.
- Trauma: Australian statistics are limited but international studies suggest that between half to two-thirds of young people will experience one or more episodes of trauma before the age of 17, such as abuse, violence, neglect, and loss.
- Bullying: In early adolescent around half of young people report incidences of bullying behaviours (AIHW, 2019). This extends to online bullying and abuse, where around 1 in 5 young people have felt threated, excluded, unsafe or abused online (e-Safety Commissioner, 2018).
- Substance use problems: Young people typically have a risk of exposure to drugs, alcohol or other illicit substances in their teens. By early adulthood around 41% of people exceed safe drinking limits, and 31% have experimented with illicit drugs (AIHW, 2020).
- Relationship challenges: The teen years are a critical time for learning to understand and build more complex relationships. This includes with friends, classmates, romantic interests, family members, teachers, and employers. Relationships can be essential to connecting and belonging, but they can also be tricky to navigate and not always healthy.
- Pressures and stress: Young people may experience mounting pressures as they navigate family, peer relationships, school work and transitioning to new school and employment situations. While some stress is normal for everyone, acute stress is an often-underestimated risk factor in developing mental health problems.
- Self and identify worries: Young people are still getting to understand themselves in terms of identify, values, beliefs and expression. Some young people such as those who are LGBTQI+ or those who feel marginalised from peers may be at increased risk of mental health problems.
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviours: Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for young people aged 15 to 24 (ABS, 2019). Many young people also have suicidal thoughts and behaviours without completing suicide.
- Community crises (e.g. Covid-19): Extended periods of uncertainty, changes and worry can impact the well-being of young people. Recent events such as the global pandemic, bushfires and floods can have a lasting impact on young people. New analysis of national data by the Australian National University has suggested a significant negative impact from Covid-19 on the mental health of children and young people aged 5 to 18.
How does Teen MHFA help?
Many young people are reluctant to seek formal support for their mental health problems. Stigma, fear, and misconceptions can negatively impact help seeking, and prevent already vulnerable young people from getting the support they need. This makes peer-to-peer support an essential part in any community-based prevention and early intervention. For it to be effective, we need to educate young people and give them the tools to understand, recognise and respond to mental health problems in the real world. This means making mental health first aid applicable to communities and schools where young people live, learn, and socialise.
Teen Mental Health First Aid (Teen MHFA) is an age-appropriate training course for secondary school students in years 7 to 9 and 10 to 12. Teen MHFA empowers young people with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to provide support to their peers. Importantly, it is delivered in settings where a minimum of 10% of adults have also been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, and therefore have the skills to support a young person experiencing a mental health problem or crises.
Teen MHFA course participants learn about the signs of developing, worsening or crisis-point mental health problems, and are given a practical plan for how to respond. Content addresses mental health problems commonly affecting young people such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Eating disorders
- Alcohol and other drug use disorders
- Psychotic disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviours
- Non-suicidal self-injury (self-harm)
- Intoxication and substance misuse
- Bullying or abuse
The course further normalises mental health conversations, reducing stigmatising attitudes and behaviours, and promoting both help giving and help seeking.
Teen MHFA is delivered across a diverse range of school and community settings by accredited Instructors specialised in the training of young people. Like all MHFA courses, it is grounded in best evidence and guided by lived experience.
- Accessible through schools and communities.
- Complements adult mental health first aid training and other mental health supports.
- Improves understanding of mental health problems (recognition and response).
- Improves helpful intentions towards peers (likelihood of providing support).
- Reduces stigmatising attitudes or misconceptions about mental illness.
- Improves recognition of support pathways e.g. teachers, school counsellors and mental health services.
- Increases social connectedness and reduces isolation.
- Empowers young people to help other young people – playing an active role in mental health knowledge and skills for life.
The mental health problems faced by young people are complex. Families, schools, communities, and health systems, all have a role to play in supporting and protecting young people so that they can live safe and happy lives and reach their full potential.
Learn more about the Teen MHFA Program
The MHFA Engagement Teams are also here to support schools and community groups at any stage of their MHFA training journey. To get in touch, email email@example.com.
To learn more about the Teen MHFA Program or to book a Teen MHFA Instructor, click the button below.
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